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Young Triathletes Have Big Dreams of Success in Sport
USA Triathlon’s Junior and Youth National Championship is set for Aug. 11-12 and will showcase the talent and determination of nearly 700 triathletes ages 7-19 from across the United States. Even at a young age, some of these triathletes see the sport as a lifestyle, with goals of participating for many years to come. These four profiles feature athletes who have worked hard, dreamed big and overcame obstacles to be on the start line in West Chester, Ohio, this weekend.
Kyleigh Spearing, 14, Frankfort, Ill.
Kyleigh got her start in triathlon three years ago when a friend from her swim team asked her to participate in a local race. She placed second, and was asked to join Z3 Triathlon Team. In early 2012, Kyleigh decided to focus solely on triathlon, but an injury after an early-season training race lead to an MRI and Kyleigh learned she had Sever’s Disease in both of her feet. Sever’s Disease, the inflammation of the growth plate in the foot, is common in youth and is only temporary.
“I have not been able to run at all since early May in order to allow my feet to heal,” said Kyleigh, who said this injury has taught her to be more in tune with her body. “Since I couldn’t run for a few months, I significantly increased my weekly swim yardage and the number of swim meets this summer.”
Kyleigh’s injury has also made her see how important the determination to participate can be. “I was fortunate to witness perseverance first hand a year ago when I watched a huge mentor of mine, Kevin McDowell, battle cancer and re-emerge this year on the triathlon scene,” she said. “His positive attitude had a huge impact on me.”
One of Kyleigh’s favorite parts of triathlon is belonging to a team. “I missed races and team activities due to injury this year, but I really enjoy and thrive in an environment of challenging but supportive coaches and fun teammates. I like the fact that we all come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. We live hundreds of miles away from each other, and while logistically we can’t always train together, we all share the same ideals and values and support each other.”
As for her future in the sport, Kyleigh is determined to work hard, learn and improve in the sport, saying, “As long as I can do all three and have fun doing it, I see a long future in the sport.” Though she is not sure what to expect this weekend, she did say she has one goal for sure: “to be a big cheerleader for my teammates and to catch up with many other athlete friends from around the country that I haven’t been able to see at races earlier this year.”
Malia Ellington, 15, N.C.
Last July, Malia was preparing to compete in the Youth Elite race at USA Triathlon’s Junior and Youth Nationals in August, and Club Nationals in October. After the 750m swim and 17-mile bike, Malia entered transition to rack her bike when her bike was hit, falling on her foot. When the bike fell, it lacerated two tendons and a nerve just under her right ankle.
“She knew something was wrong but couldn't wait to run,” said Nancy Ellington, Malia’s mother. Malia continued on, picking up her gear and heading to her transition area, thinking she could complete the race barefoot if she couldn’t put on her shoes. Instead, she ended up in an ambulance and had surgery that day.
Though Malia was not able to swim, bike or run, she resolved to return to triathlon, faster and stronger than she had been before her injury. She regularly made trips to the local YMCA and used the arm cycle machine to maintain her fitness. When Malia started her freshman year in high school and missed what would have been her first cross country season, she continued her rehabilitation, visiting a specialized sport physical therapist for six months. Her doctor said she may be ready to compete eight months after her surgery, and she would likely be at 80 percent of her ability.
In March, Malia was able to participate in the Clermont Draft Legal Challenge — a great way for her to get experience in a draft-legal race before the Youth Elite race at Junior and Youth Nationals. Not only did she finish third and qualify for the national championship race, Malia met athletes from Triton Elite Multisport and joined their team.
“She has been thrilled to be able to compete in the USAT Youth Elite Cup Series this year, traveling to Florida, Dallas, Monroe, Iowa and soon, Ohio,” said Nancy, adding, “Malia is so thankful for all the support she has had from her doctors, physical therapists, coaches, family and friends while recovering from her injury.”
Jonathan Guiza, 13, Fairfield Ct.
Jonathan has only been involved in triathlon for one year, but he already has set big goals for his future in the sport. His dad showed him a video of an Ironman race, and Jonathan immediately knew he wanted to get involved in such an amazing sport.
He met his coach, Pascale Butcher, when he visited Jennings Beach with his dad. “He came to me and we started to talk about triathlon,” she said. “I could see straight away that this young man was special. He seems so determined to learn and to get better that we took him under our wings and helped him throughout the year to improve.”
The individual aspect of triathlon appeals to Jonathan, but he helps coach younger triathletes on his team and at team-run camps. “I think he is a very good role model for our youth,” Pascale said. “He has shown that a clear goal, a great work ethic and enthusiasm can take you a long way in life.”
Jonathan hopes to one day become a professional triathlete and win the Ironman World Championships in Kona, and he says he is training hard to achieve his goals. For now, he is training hard and focusing his energy on being active and healthy. His goal for the weekend is to soon be able to compete in the Youth Elite division.
“Triathlon is a great sport and I would tell other kids to just try it and do it for fun,” Jonathan said when asked how he would share his love of the sport. “Keep trying to be better and that's how you will get better. It might look hard but it's not — you just have to be focused in what you want to do.”
Susannah Holifield, 11, Arlington, Ill.
As an 8-year-old, Susannah completed her first triathlon and immediately fell in love. That year for Christmas, she told her family that instead of a number of different presents, she would rather just have one — a road bike for triathlons.
Much of Susannah’s improvements in triathlon have been due to her own persistence. “She had never taken a swimming lesson, but began watching videos and reading books and going to the pool,” said Susannah’s mom, Michele. “She read books on how to transition fast, bought shoes with no shoelaces to save time, and finally this summer saved money to buy herself a tri-suit.”
Like many others her age, triathlon is a learning experience. Susannah has been able to get more from the sport than just how to be a better swimmer, biker and runner, according to her mom. “This sport has taught her perseverance, dedication, how to win gracefully, how to improve when you think you can, and how to have fun.”
Susannah enjoys other sports — she plays basketball, softball and runs 5ks — but she admires triathletes like Chrissie Wellington and Hunter Kemper and has dreams of what her future in triathlon will be like. “My first goal when I am old enough is to be invited to one of the triathlon skill camps, and maybe even get to go to the Olympic Training Center,” she said, “Then I would like to be in the Olympics someday, and also finish the Ironman.”
Even with her competitive spirit, Susannah likes to cheer for other athletes who might be participating in her races, and says she enjoys meeting people who like the sport as much as she does. Junior and Youth Nationals is a great opportunity for just that. “I am pretty sure there is going to be some great competition,” Susannah said. “It will be fun to meet other people from lots of different places.”